The History of Fort Mose Florida
Junious Ricardo Stanton
“More than 300 years ago, courageous Africans escaped from enslavement in British colonies. They fled southward on foot to Spanish St. Augustine, crossing swamps and dense tropical forests. Along they way, they sought assistance from Natives, thus creating the first ‘underground railroad’”. The Fort Mose Story https://fortmose.org/about-fort-mose/
Most people think the path to freedom for enslaved Africans in the British colonies and the US ran from the South to the North along the fabled “Underground Railroad”, but that is not the case. Blacks escaped via a Southern route to Florida and a few fled into the Mid-Western territories.
Spain had a different approach to slavery. Slavery existed in Spain but in Spain slaves who were mostly prisoners of war had rights they could own property and they could sue in court. As a strategic move King Charles II of Spain ordered the Florida colony to provide free haven to enslaved people from the British colonies. “In 1693, King Charles II of Spain ordered his Florida colonists to give runaway slaves from British colonies freedom and protection if they converted to Catholicism and agreed to serve Spain. The fugitive slaves from South Carolina who made it to Spanish Florida could expect to gain more control over their own lives, even as Spanish slaves. Between the late 17th and the mid-18th centuries, an unknown number of slaves from South Carolina successfully escaped to Florida. Spanish records note at least six separate groups of slaves who escaped from South Carolina to St. Augustine between 1688 and 1725. This policy of refuge encouraged fugitive slaves to flee to Spanish Florida with the hope of a better life if they made it to a Spanish outpost, and it gave the Spanish a weapon to use against the British. Spain’s policy toward runaways took laborers from the British colony and boosted its own colonial population to oppose the British.” Fort Mose Site Florida https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/American_Latino_Heritage/Fort_Mose.html
The first actual Black settlement in Spanish Florida was Fort Mose it was founded in 1687. The Spanish who were bitter rivals of England France and the Dutch offered freedom to escaping enslaved people with the condition they pledge loyalty to the Spanish crown and convert to Catholicism. Most of the Africans who fled left South Carolina heading South to Florida. Escaped males had to serve in the Spanish militia. The hardy souls who made the trek had to traverse swamps and thick forests to make their way to St Augustine. Many did not survive the journey. The first to arrive was a small band that included only eight men two women and an infant child.
The escapees were a welcome addition because they provided skilled labor and men to man the fortified settlements. “The Spanish were glad to have skilled laborers, and the freedmen were also welcome additions to St. Augustine’s weak military forces. In 1738 the Spanish governor established the runaways in their own fortified town, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, about two miles north of St. Augustine, Florida. Mose (pronounced “Moh- say”) became the first legally sanctioned free Black town in the present-day United States, and it is a critically important site for Black American history. Mose provides important evidence that Black American colonial history was much more than slavery and oppression. The men and women of Mose won their liberty through great daring and effort and made important contributions to Florida’s multi-ethic heritage.” Fort Mose America’s Black Fortress of Freedom https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/histarch/research/st-augustine/fort-mose/
A fortified town was established and the Black men who arrived served in the militia defending the fort. “By 1738, more than 100 freedom seekers had achieved asylum. In that year, a fortified town named Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose was constructed on St. Augustine’s northernmost border. Fort Mose became the site of the first free black community in what is now the United States.
A formerly enslaved African led the free black militia of Fort Mose. His name was Captain Francisco Menéndez. For years, the warriors valiantly protected St. Augustine. However, when Spain ceded all of La Florida to England in 1763, the citizens of Fort Mose once again faced enslavement. They abandoned the fort and sought safety in Spanish Cuba.” https://fortmose.org/about-fort-mose/
The wars between Spain and England spilled unto their colonies and the British took Fort Mose in 1740. The residents fled to nearby St. Augustine but regrouped under their leader Francisco Menendez and subsequently retook the fort. “By 1738 there were 100 blacks, mostly runaways from the Carolinas, living in what became Fort Mose. Many were skilled workers, blacksmiths, carpenters, cattlemen, boatmen, and farmers. With accompanying women and children, they created a colony of freed people that ultimately attracted other fugitive slaves. When war broke out in 1740 between England and Spain, the people of St. Augustine and nearby Fort Mose found themselves involved in a conflict that stretched across three continents. The English sent thousands of soldiers and dozens of ships to destroy St. Augustine and bring back any runaways. They set up a blockade and bombarded the town for 27 consecutive days. Hopelessly outnumbered, the diverse population of blacks, Indians and whites pulled together. Fort Mose was one of the first places attacked. Lead by Captain Francisco Menendez, the men of the Fort Mose Militia briefly lost the Fort but eventually recaptured it, repelling the English invasion force. Florida remained in Spanish hands and for the next 80 years remained a haven for fugitive slaves from the British colonial possessions of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia and later when these possessions became part of the United States.” Fort Mose Florida (1738-1820) James Bullock https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/fort-mose-florida/
Fort Mose was abandoned and was overrun by marsh. Fort Mose garnered attention in the mid twentieth century when archeologists began uncovering the ruins and discovering the African contribution to St Augustine Florida. The state of Florida acquired the twenty-four acre site and administers it through the Anastasia State Recreation Area. The area is located in a marsh so there is no public access to the actual fort site. In 1994 Fort Mose was designated a National Historic Landmark.